Author Archive

How we came to live in Mendocino

We’d never been camping before as a family when, in the summer of 1971, Tony and I decided to take our children, then eight and five, on a short trip to explore some of the northern part of California. On our return, I wrote an ecstatic letter to my parents:

Beach at Russian Gulch Staate Park

The beach at Russian Gulch State Park, looking under the bridge to the sea. Image by David Eppstein, Wikimedia Commons.

25 August 1971
I guess I haven’t told you about our camping trip. We had a marvellous time, and are really sold on camping. We hired a 9×9 tent, and bought a pup tent for the boys, a propane stove and lantern, and a very nice ice box, so we were pretty well set up, and the state park campgrounds are really very civilised, with your own picnic table and food cupboard, and running water, bathrooms and showers not too far way. We spent five nights at Russian Gulch, which is on the Mendocino coast, about 200 miles north of here. This really is a delightful spot. The sea coast here is very rugged, with steep cliffs and caves and tumbled rocks, and grassy meadows on the headlands, with pine and redwood forests behind. The gulch is made by a lush little creek that flows into a tiny cove, making a perfect beach for the children, and the campsites are straggled along the edge of the creek, sheltered from the sea wind, and with a view of redwoods high above you. The weather was beautiful – only a trace of fog a few mornings, and it can be thick all the time. The children got very used to going for long walks, and we also spent a lot of time just sitting and unwinding and watching the wildlife – lots of jays, rabbits, chipmunks and garter snakes. The anchovies were running in the cove, so thick they were being hauled in by waders with nets, and of course they attracted the bigger fish. We were sitting on the beach one afternoon when a group of scuba divers came along with a huge catch, and offered us some, so we had fresh cod for supper.

After describing our impressions of Mendocino village – “splendid weather-beaten old buildings, many of them fine examples of carpenter Gothic, very similar to New Zealand colonial period architecture” – the letter continues:

From Russian Gulch we went on up the coast highway then inland to the Humboldt Redwoods. These are very lovely and impressive, but I think our hearts were still at Russian Gulch.

Here’s where the story takes a mythic turn. Here’s how I tell it now:

Once upon a summer afternoon a man and a woman sat on a beach. As the couple sat and gazed, a young man emerged from the sea. He was beautiful, with golden hair that hung to his shoulders and a body that had known good exercise. From each of his hands hung a fish, whose scales shone wet and silvery.

The woman called out, “Nice catch!” to the fisherman as he passed.

He paused. “Would you like one?”

The woman’s fingers flew to her blushing face. “Oh no, no, I didn’t mean …”

The fisherman lingered. “Please. I have more than I need.” He held out one of the fish.

The man sitting with the woman rose slowly to his feet. The fisherman placed the fish in his out-stretched hands. The man bowed his head and murmured his thanks. That evening, the man and the woman cooked the fish over their campfire and ate its sweet flesh.

After the man and woman returned to the city, every now and then they would feel a tug, as if they were being played on an invisible line. They would say to each other, “We need to go back to that place.” So they would rent a house on the coast for a week or two. The sea sang to them, and each evening a golden light would seep like an enchantment across the drowsy headlands. When their time was up, they would return sadly to the city.

In this way thirty years passed. Each year the tugs grew stronger, the city more and more unbearable. At last they could resist no longer. They left the city. In a house close to where they had eaten the fish, where the scent of the sea came to them, they quietly lived out their days.

Pacific Cod

Gifts of an old tree

aricots on tree branch

Ripe apricots on a tree. Image from Nature & Garden.

The Cupertino CA neighborhood where I lived in the early 1970s was developed about 1962 on the site of an old apricot orchard, the trees probably planted before the post-WWII boom of the 1950s transformed the orchard-covered Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley. The developers had left an apricot tree on each lot. Gnarled and picturesque, they provided welcome shade on hot summer days, and a harvest of apricots for those who loved them. Letters to my parents from two different years offer a glimpse of harvest time:

26 June, 1970
… Meanwhile, the apricots are getting ripe. We have started picking, and they are delicious. Several neighbours with trees (this used to be an orchard) don’t like them too much, so those of us that do are planning to get together and pick for drying. You have to have 65 lbs. of fresh fruit to fill a tray, and a local orchard will sulphur and dry them for us for $30 a tray – pretty cheap dried apricots!

apricots drying on trays

Apricots drying in the sun at the Curry family orchard in San Jose, date unknown. Standing are Douglas and Howard Curry. Image from Lisa Prince Newman’s blog, For the Love of Apricots.

I still remember the fun we had at that orchard in Los Altos Hills. It had a long, open-sided shed with a work table running down the center. My friend Judi and I and other women of the neighborhood stood at the table, cutting or breaking open pound after pound of golden, honey-scented fruit and laying them on the drying trays. Beyond the shed we could see a stretch of bare earth where the big wooden trays of fruit lay open to the sun. About ten days later we returned and were presented with our now-dried fruit, shriveled, somewhat brown, but delicious. A year later:

26 July, 1971
I have also been busy coping with the apricot crop. Our poor old tree has really taken a beating this year. We lost a third of it in the spring with fire blight, and then came home one afternoon when they were just about ripe to find a huge branch crashed to the ground. The poor thing is just dying of old age, and we shouldn’t have let it carry so much fruit. I managed to salvage about 70 lbs. from the broken branch, which we took to a commercial orchard to be dried. They turned out very well this year. They shrink, of course, to a fifth of their weight, but 13 lbs. of dried apricots is a fair quantity. I have also bottled quite a lot, and made jam, and then we had a bright notion of drying another 30 lbs. at home and making wine with them. This is Tony’s project, and he has been having a great time with it. We came home the other night (after eating out with friends) to find that the yeast was working so well in one jar that it had blown the top off, and there was gicky apricot pulp all over the counter!  

Decades later, when we finally opened a forgotten bottle of that wine, it was vinegar. Oh well …  By then we were no longer living in Cupertino, so I don’t know how much longer that kind old tree lived. I hope its new humans gave it a dignified end.

The way we see ourselves (and others)

Some years ago, when I was still in the workforce, I was rebuked at a performance evaluation for “not putting [myself] forward enough.” Startled, I explained to my boss that in the New Zealand culture in which I grew up, to boast about one’s accomplishments was considered very bad form. Modesty, on the other hand, was praiseworthy. I still think this is true. But I’ve come to realize that New Zealanders had, and probably still have, a contradictory notion: a self-perception of being more self-reliant, more able to come up with creative solutions to problems than people of other nations, such as Americans. This trait, we told ourselves, arose from necessity. Lacking an industrial base, and being so far away from industrial centers, New Zealanders had to import manufactured goods at high cost or make do and mend what we had. Everyone I knew grew their own vegetables. Women sewed and knitted. Car owners kept their vehicles for as long as possible. Frugality was a virtue.

I saw evidence of this sense of superiority to Americans in an exchange of letters with my mother in the early 1970s. I told my parents about a landscaping project Tony and I were working on at the house we’d recently purchased:

April 12, 1971
We turned bricklayers this weekend, and have now laid half of the front courtyard in red brick, basket weave pattern. It is looking beautiful—we are really very proud of ourselves, and it wasn’t as difficult as we expected. We used a dry mortar method, laying a base of sand mixed with cement, and tamping in a richer cement/sand mixture between the bricks. The most tedious part was washing off each brick and smoothing the mortar with a fine spray of water. Then twelve hours later you just slosh the lot down really thoroughly and leave it to set. Needless to say, we are both very fit these days. Apart from a patch of sunburn on my shoulders, I am feeling no ill effects at all today.

In her next letter, Mum must have made some comment on how impressive we must appear to our neighbors, doing all this work ourselves. And how typical of New Zealanders. I responded:

May 2, 1971
New Zealanders don’t have the monopoly on do-it-yourself, you know! You should see the crowds at the handyman-type shops every weekend here.

I continued with an anecdote that shed a less than favorable light on the prejudices of some other Kiwi immigrants:

We were a little amused at another N.Z. couple we know, who have this thing about N.Z. characteristics. We had invited them to dinner, & I tried to give [our friend] directions—after all, Cupertino’s house numbering system is completely random, & I thought they might at least want to know what freeway exit to take. But she pooh-poohed the whole thing—it was “terribly American” to give directions—if they couldn’t find their way by map they weren’t self-respecting N.Zers! As it turned out, they had (inefficiently) double-booked on engagements, & couldn’t come …

Reading this exchange again after so many years, I recognize the beginnings of a shift in allegiance. I was no longer blindly loyal to the sometimes insular attitudes of my birth country. I was learning to question assumptions and beliefs about any group of people. I was learning that being an immigrant is complicated.

The Easter Bunny mystery

How could my husband and I be so mean as to deny our kids the Easter Bunny? I frowned as I reread the letter to my parents stashed in my old black filing cabinet.

Maureen with our pet rabbit, Bun-Bun, c. 1970

12 April 1971
The kids are back at school today after their week of Easter vacation. The weather has been so beautiful and spring-like. This is something I couldn’t really understand until I came to the northern hemisphere—the significance of Easter as a spring festival—the death and rebirth of the god that is an important part of almost every religion there has ever been. Here a big thing at Easter is the Easter Bunny, who is alleged to bring baskets of candy eggs and goodies to kids on Sunday morning. This Tony and I just can’t go along with—somewhat to the kids’ disappointment, I think, though we do buy them a fancy Easter egg, and of course we have the fun and mess of dyeing hard-boiled eggs and hiding them in the garden for an egg hunt. I did allow Simon to share our pet rabbit at school one morning. Bun-Bun was less than enthusiastic about the whole project, but the children were ecstatic.

Part of the reason for our rejection of the Easter Bunny was that Tony and I grew up in New Zealand, where rabbits were despised as pests. Brought by early settlers to a place with no natural predators, their population quickly reached plague proportions, causing major erosion problems. We did have Easter eggs, but given that we celebrated the festival in the Southern Hemisphere autumn, they had no significance other than as a source of sugar and chocolate. Even living in California, we couldn’t see any connection between rabbits and the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. I decided this week to look into the question. I quickly found myself down a fascinating rabbit hole of customs, beliefs, and theories, many of them contradictory.

How the Easter Bunny came to the U.S. seems pretty clear. According to several sources, the creature first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” who brought colored eggs to good children at Easter. As the custom spread across the U.S. the hare somehow transformed itself into the more familiar rabbit and its Easter morning deliveries expanded to include chocolate and other types of candy and gifts.

The hare’s (or rabbit’s) connection with Christianity are more complicated. For the first few centuries, the Christian festival coincided with the Jewish Passover, which is when the historical events surrounding Jesus’s death occurred.  Though the Christian calendar has since been modified, both festivals are still close to each other in spring. Both are based on a lunar calendar; the date of Easter was defined in 325 CE by the Council of Nicaea as the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. In Anglo-Saxon regions of Northern Europe, the Christian festival seems to have merged with a pre-existing equinox festival honoring Eostre, the goddess of spring, and Christians continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season. Since hares and rabbits give birth to large litters in early spring, they have long been recognized as symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the vernal equinox.

Titian: “The Madonna of the Rabbit” 1530, now in the Louvre, Paris.

No, no, no, say some Catholic writers. The Easter Bunny has Christian origins. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that the hare could conceive again while pregnant, thus shortening the time between litters and delivering more offspring during a breeding season. Later Greek writers such as Pliny and Plutarch expounded the notion that hares (and rabbits, by association) were hermaphrodite, and thus could self-impregnate and reproduce as virgins. During the medieval period, hares and rabbits began appearing in illuminated manuscripts and paintings depicting the Virgin Mary, serving as an allegorical illustration of her virginity.

European brown hare. Image from Wikipedia.

Two pregnancies at once? Intrigued, I veer into another passageway of my research rabbit warren. It turns out that, as the Smithsonian Magazine put it, “Aristotle got it right: the European brown hare (Lepus europaeus) can get pregnant while it’s pregnant.” In 2010, scientists of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany, led by Dr. Kathleen Roellig, published the results of their study. Using selective breeding and high-resolution ultrasonography, they showed that a male hare can fertilize a female during late pregnancy. The resulting embryos will develop around four days before delivery of the first pregnancy. To quote from the Smithsonian article: “The embryos don’t have any place to go at that time, however, since the uterus is occupied by the embryos’ older brothers and sisters. So the embryos hang out in the oviduct, rather like when you wait in your car for a parking space to open up. Once the uterus is free, the embryos move in.”

My head is spinning. I think I need chocolate.

The way we learn to belong

Footsteps of Spring. Unless otherwise captioned, all images are by Maureen Eppstein.

Once more we are at that seasonal turn familiar in California history: after a winter of great rains, floods and mudslides, the promise of an extraordinary blaze of color as wildflowers burst into bloom. My first experience of this magical transition was in 1969, my second spring in this new country. I describe it in letters to parents:

Feb. 28, 1969
It has actually stopped raining for the past hour. Another shower on the way, of course, but such a respite to see the sun. We have been averaging one sunny day a week for the past two months, and the general situation is already critical. We are not doing too badly in the Santa Clara Valley. All the creeks are contained by reservoirs up in the hills, and although the largest one, Anderson, is spilling over the top and flooding parts of east-side San José, the others are still holding their own. Fortunately the weather-man had predicted a respite for the next four or five days, i.e., drizzle instead of a deluge, and the authorities are hoping to get enough water away through the sluices of the other six dams during this time to make room for next week’s storms. Where we live is on relatively high ground anyway, so it is unlikely that we would be affected. The really big headache though is Central Valley, which drains the whole of the Sierra Nevada range. The Sacramento-San Joachim delta has flooded twice already in the past two months, and the river levels are still dangerously high. But in the high Sierra the snow fall is already twice the annual average, and we are only one third through the rainy season. Sooner or later that stuff is going to thaw, and if there is a warm rain up there, the effect will be sudden and disastrous. Meanwhile, it is still raining, with violent storms rolling in from the Pacific with tedious regularity. For some vast meteorological reason, the storm belt has swung further south than normal this year—so we are getting what Alaska usually gets. (They say it’s a mild winter in Alaska this year!)

A field of mixed wildflowers: Arroyo Lupine, Baby Blue-eyes, Purple Owls Clover and Tidy-tips. Image from Mother Nature’s Backyard.

And a few weeks later:

April 14, 1969
[After a visit to the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton] We decided to see what it was like on the other side of the mountain. We found ourselves in a charming little valley, the San Antonio, which we followed back to Livermore and the freeway home. The land in this part is lightly wooded, and very sparsely populated—we saw a few ranch houses, occasional small herds of cattle, the odd horseman and dog, and that’s all. And at this time of year, the earth between the trees is covered with fresh grass, so scattered and strewn with wildflowers that it looks like some magic carpet.

Goldfields

I think it is one of the most wonderful sights I have ever seen. Great swathes of colour, of every shade. One they call Sunshine, or Goldfields, a tiny daisy-like flower, brilliant yellow. It grows only a few inches high, but in such profusion that, as its name implies, it makes a great field of colour. And on the slopes of Mt. Hamilton we thought for a while the snow was still lying, there were such patches of a snowy white flower. But other colours too, pinks and blues right through to the purples and reds. And down in the lower valleys, the California poppy, a brilliant orange. …I love these flowers so much.

An interviewer recently asked me what moved me toward writing about nature. I replied that as an immigrant, learning about the land was a big part of learning to belong to my adopted country. I’ve found this be particularly true when I moved from the Bay Area to the Mendocino coast. I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Teresa Sholars, whose College of the Redwoods wildflower identification class gave me the names of beloved beauties. Here’s a poem about them:

California Wildflowers

It seems a simple joy
to greet the flowers by name
Tidy Tips, Goldfields, Blue-Eyed Grass,
Crane’s Bill and Cream Cup,
Sticky Monkey Flower,
Mule’s Ears, Owl’s Clover,
Sun Cups glossy by the path,
Milkmaids in shade,

Lupine and Poppy on the slope,

but to the immigrant who after 40 years
still speaks with foreign intonation,
these are pet-names for familiars
precious as friends,
who speak in a language without words
of soils: clay and serpentine,
of rains and drought,
the way the lineaments of the land
impress themselves,
the way we learn to belong.

Cream Cups

California Poppy, Coastal variety.

In a couple of days I’m off to Portland, OR for the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference. I was invited to be part of a group representing Scarlet Tanager Books, publisher of the anthology Fire & Rain: Ecopoetry of California, in which I have several poems. We’re hosting a reception at the conference, and doing a reading at a neighboring bookstore.  Being recognized as an “ecopoet of California” makes me feel that, after what is now 52 years, this beautiful state is home. Enjoy this season’s flowers.

Fire and Rain cover

Sharing the joy of language

In my old black filing cabinet I find a treasure: a few stapled sheets of pink copy paper printed with the unmistakable purple ink of a ditto machine. It is the output of my first poetry teaching gig. I explain in a letter to my parents.

March 1, 1971
I am starting on Friday teaching one hour a week at [my son’s] school. This is what they call a scramble program, where 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders (6-9 yr-olds) are all mixed together to take activities of their own choice, from a list that includes ceramics, folk-dancing, tennis, guitar playing, cookery, woodwork, arts & crafts, etc. The teachers and mothers involved get to teach whatever they are interested in. I am taking a group who are interested in writing poetry. It should be fun, but requires a lot of preparation.

As a university student in New Zealand I had chosen not to make teaching my profession. I’ve not regretted this decision. But over the years I have enjoyed the challenge of teaching short-term writing programs, though even this first one had its moments.

March 29, 1971
My poetry class is coming along quite well, though conditions were a bit poor last week – it was raining, & all the frustrated outdoor games kids crowded into the library too, & my poor kids couldn’t get into the mood.

Cover of a recent CA Poets in the Schools anthology.

At the end of the program I would have made enough copies of the pink sheets for all the children in my group to take home. I still remember the frustration of making ditto masters, using a manual typewriter with the ribbon removed. Any mistake and you had to start over. I still remember the smell of the alcohol solvent that permeated the printed pages. I also remember the children’s joy in the power of language.

Today I’d like to give a shout-out to California Poets in the Schools, a program that not only places poet-teachers in classrooms, but also provides training and resources to help them in their work of “empower[ing] students of all ages throughout California to express their creativity, imagination, and intellectual curiosity through writing, performing and publishing their own poetry.” And I’m in awe of the technologies that support a quality of publication way beyond my pathetic purple dittoes.

A legacy of crocheted lace

A crochet fragment in my workbox

A comment in  an old letter to my mother catches my eye:

March 1, 1971
I can’t remember anything about that bit of crochet, Mum, but I guess it probably is mine. Now it will sit in my workbox for years!

Do I still have it? I open the Cadbury’s Chocolate box that holds my collection of crochet hooks and sundry balls of crochet thread. On top sits a small piece of lace, obviously the beginnings of an ambitious project. Was it the piece that cluttered Mum’s workbox? Probably.

My great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Caundle, as I remember her.

The art of crochet was honored in my mother’s family, passed on, like all domestic arts, from generation to generation. The most noted expert was my great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Caundle, whom I met a few times when I was a child. She was born in 1864 to Irish immigrants on a New Zealand goldfield. In a reminiscence my mother wrote:

Outside the back door [of Grandma’s house] in the sun was a stool to sit on.  Across the yard in a shed that housed the wash house with its copper and wooden tubs with the toilet next to it.  Grandma washed the clothes in the old way with a well-stoked fire under the copper to boil the sheets, etc.  The tubs for the rinsing and blueing with a hand-turned wringer between them.  While visiting as a small girl I was being taught how to crochet.  Trying to make my doll a pink woolen petticoat like the ones Grandma made for us.  Something would not go right so I called for assistance.  There was Grandma coming across the yard at her usual jog-trot wiping the soapsuds off her arms on her apron (Must always wear an apron) to sort out my muddle.  The picture is still so clear in my mind.

… As we grew older we were given doilies and crochet-edged linen for our “box.”  At each 21st birthday each granddaughter was presented with an afternoon tea cloth with a wide edge of crochet lace. 

Before she died in 1951, Great-Grandma Caundle had started making doilies for her great-granddaughters. I missed out, but inherited a piece of her work from my mother. Fascinated by Mum’s stories about her grandmother’s life, I put together a poem:

Detail of a crocheted doily by Sarah Jane Caundle.

Great-Grandma’s Doily

Early afternoon, when chores were done,
Great-Grandma put her feet up on the kitchen couch
and gave herself an hour with crochet hook and thread
to figure out the sequence from a photograph—
chain and double loop and treble—
the mathematical progression of the rounds
revealing patterns satisfying in their laciness.

She learned the art at her mother’s knee
in the dirt-floored hut at the Puriri claim.
Her mother learned it from her Mam
back in Ireland before famine memories
and rumors of gold in the far-off colonies
took Bernie Donnelly and his new young wife
adventuring across the world.

There was a dame school at the diggings.
Great-Grandma might have gone some days
but not enough for fluency in letters.
She had sisters and brothers to mind,
manuka-twig brooms to fashion for the floor,
clay to fetch for the hearth’s weekly whitewash of mud.
She entered service as a housemaid at eleven.
Later came marriage and children of her own,
nine of them, then grandchildren to care for.

All this time persisting in her art,
gifting to daughters and grand-daughters
lacy linens for their marriage chests.
I have one doily, handed down, an oval of white linen
edged with a crocheted frill of tulips in a row,
each stitch pulled neat and tight, a testament
to discipline and practice, and the will
to make time for her art.

 

A spat in slow motion

A spat between parent and adult child is different when conducted on flimsy blue international air letter forms. For one thing, it happens in slow motion: weeks pass between riposte and retort. For another, it’s solitary: neither side can see the angry tears of the other. And it’s documented; that is, if letters are kept. My mother kept all mine, and gave the bundle back to me. I constantly regret that I didn’t keep hers, so have to guess at the comment to which a letter of hers or mine would have responded.

A typical example happened in late 1971. Decades later, as I read through my old words, I recognize patterns of individuation familiar to every psychoanalyst.

It started with a postscript to a birthday thank-you note my six-year-old son had written on Nov. 13, 1971.

My son Simon’s thank-you letter

At the bottom of the page I’d scrawled:

Do I assume that you have given up writing to me?

Mum’s response, as I remember it, was to the effect that if she wrote to one member of my family, it was to be assumed that she was thinking of us all. Here’s my response:

Nov. 23, 1971
I’m sorry that you got so uptight about my comment, Mum. However, I think we should clear up some basic misunderstandings about the children. I am delighted that you have written to them, and they are too. They think it is pretty special when an adult relative takes an interest in them. But it is very important to me that the kids be seen as individual people, with interests and responsibilities of their own, and this includes developing communications with other adults outside the immediate family. This, I think, is a reaction to my own childhood, when you tended to take over any attempts we made to establish relationships with other people. Now don’t get upset – I’m just trying to show you how I see myself, and how I see my kids. If you only have time to write to the kids, that’s O.K. I’ll encourage them to answer your letters, but there may be some long gaps. They are not big enough yet to handle a regular correspondence. But I have no intention of taking over the responsibility for them, nor of regarding your letters to them as some sort of gimmick substitute. I am an individual person too, and I haven’t had a letter from you since August.

We made up our differences in the next round of letters. In response to her plaint about the difficulty of being a parent, I wrote:

Dec. 14, 1971
I know what you mean, Mum, about bringing up kids. I sometimes wonder what these two will hold against me when they grow up, and it’s sure to be something I’ve never thought of.

Saga of an unpublished novel

novel manuscript

The manuscript of “A Stone from the Wall”

In the bottom drawer of my old black filing cabinet sits a beat-up cardboard box that contains the dog-eared  manuscript of my first completed novel in the US, “A Stone from the Wall.” The saga of my attempts to get it published, as reflected in letters to my parents, may get a nod of recognition from other aspiring writers.

March 15, 1972
I have finally got my book off my hands. I received an invitation last week to submit it to Houghton Mifflin Co., one of the most prestigious of the major publishing companies, so after a final frantic effort to finish typing the fair copy, it is now on its way. Whether they will buy it or not is of course another matter, but just to get an editor there enthusiastic about the idea is a tremendous boost. It is their sort of book—a serious look at a contemporary theme. My subject is racial prejudice, and the point I am trying to make is that, for a white person trying to come to terms with racial problems, the most difficult, and even painful, part is learning to recognize your own prejudices. This is mainly, of course, because the more concerned you become, the more you want to think of yourself as one of the good guys.

July 2, 1972
I was going to leave finishing this until after the mailman came today, but don’t really see the point. If I seem a bit edgy in this letter, I am. I was told by Random House that I would hear from them within 4-6 weeks. It is now nearly 5 weeks, and my heart starts hurting every time the mail truck goes up the road. It’s very tedious bracing yourself for rejection every day.

At some point I received a hand-written rejection note from the editor-in-chief of an eminent house—I believe it was Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf—who complimented me on my “ability to make my characters come alive,” which buoyed me up for a few more rounds of submission and rejection. I no longer have the note or, for that matter, any of the many rejection notices I received.

July 25, 1972
My book showed up on the doorstep again, as expected. Disappointing of course, but this time I have decided to revise a lot of it before sending it out again. When you are writing fiction, you become in a very real sense the characters you are writing about, and sometimes it is difficult to stand back and look at them objectively—like it is difficult to look at yourself. But now I think I can see at least some areas where the characters are not interesting, or even not alive, but just vehicles for ideas. However, I am going to leave it now until fall—it’s just too difficult to work over the summer. The kids are very good, but they are something of a distraction. In the meantime I have various other articles and poems doing the rounds. They come back periodically, of course, but I figure that with enough things going, I’ll get somewhere eventually. I have had a couple of commissions from Tui [my editor at the Christchurch Press] which I have now sent off … I do still get very depressed every so often, but Tony usually manages to pull me out of it if I can’t shake it off myself. I even made a list this week of all the other things I was going to accomplish this summer. Boring jobs like cleaning the oven figure rather prominently …

November 1972
I am trying to get back to my novel, but keep getting sidetracked with new ideas [for stories and articles]. Have just finished grading a big set of students’ short stories for Millicent [the high school teacher for whom I worked]. Tremendous ideas and effort, but my main reaction as I tore each one apart was, my gosh, that’s what’s wrong with my writing too.

Discouraged, and preoccupied with other projects, I eventually gave up and moved on. As I noted in my blog essay “The Other Side of the Freeway,” I understand now why “A Stone from the Wall” never found a publisher. I was way too new to this country, and way too naïve, to do justice to its thorny subject. I didn’t understand how much the life experiences, interests, and even musical tastes of my African-American characters might be different from those of my white characters. Though I devoured my subscription to The Writer magazine from cover to cover, the protocols of book publishing still felt like an enormous black hole. The battered manuscript box deservedly stays in the bottom drawer of my old black filing cabinet.

Technological breakthrough brings excitement

On March 29, 1971 I scrawled a letter to my parents on the back of a copied newspaper clipping. In it I wrote:

We thought you might be interested in this cutting from the New York Times. It was also reproduced in the local paper, as well as the major papers in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the phone hasn’t  stopped ringing at CMX [the company where my husband Tony worked] ever since. They have been demonstrating to all the major movie & TV producers & advertising agencies – a fascinating assortment of characters around the place, Tony says. Tony is going to Denver, Colorado for a magnetics conference the week after Easter. I think he is feeling quite amused about confronting the magnetics “Establishment” who were convinced that what he did (using magnetic computer disks to record video pictures) was technically impossible.

The article, by Jack Gould, the New York Times’s television and radio critic and reporter, goes into more detail. “Computer to Save Millions in Film Editing Due Soon” is its title. Calling it “a major technological advance in Hollywood’s methods of producing films and tapes for television and motion pictures,” he wrote:

“In layman’s terms, the heart of the CMX system is its ability to collect and file away all the separate “takes” of a film and make them instantly available for an editor, sitting at a console of two screens, to put in coherent order. This working print or tape is immediately made into a running whole while at the same time all the trims and cuts are preserved for later consideration.

“Operation of the system borders on the eerie. The console operator can order up whatever he wishes to see. He presses no buttons or pulls any switches. Rather, he uses a pencil light that directs the system to offer a choice of “menus,” i.e., whether he wants the system to record, play back or edit.

“If the director wants to see Scene 1 of Act 2, he presses his pencil light, actually a photoelectric cell, against those words on the face of the screen. Instantly there is a still picture denoting that the sequence is ready for study. The light is then pressed against the word “run” and the scene starts.

“With the same pencil light the operator can order the system to stop. He can thereupon order a new starting point and new ending. Thereafter he can review the edited scenes and, if he wishes, compare them with the original.”

CMX Systems was a joint venture between the Columbia Broadcasting System television network and Memorex Corp., the company that had brought us to California in 1967. According to Wikipedia, the company’s name stood for CBS, Memorex, and eXperimental. Tony and his colleagues shared a patent for their work, as well as the satisfaction of having contributed to a breakthrough in technology. The company was sold in 1974, and Tony returned to Memorex, where he continued to work on magnetic recording technologies.

Front page of the CMX group’s patent.

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